Few of the 11 culture secretaries we’ve had over the past 12 years have had a chance to make much of an impact, but Nadine Dorries may prove to be the exception to that rule.
Her year-long tenure as culture secretary, from September 2021 to 2022, came at a consequential time as Arts Council England (ACE) prepared for the 2023-26 round of its National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) investment programme – the first portfolio selected under its 10-year strategy, Let’s Create.
A keen proponent of the levelling-up agenda, and with the now-traditional disregard culture secretaries have for the arm’s length principle, Dorries made clear that her driving ambition at DCMS was to ensure that arts and culture reached the parts of England that had long been neglected by cultural investment.
Although it erred on the side of ministerial interference, this was a laudable aim given the stubborn fact that, since the arts council was first established, a disproportionate amount of funding has been lavished on London and the wealthy home counties.
But with very little extra money – £43.6m per year – added to the NPO pot, Dorries’s instruction that £75m a year of NPO funding should be allocated outside London meant that, while some organisations would be on the up, others would simply be levelled. Not to mention that, with the portfolio growing from 840 to 990 NPOs, the £446m-a-year funding pot would be made to stretch further than ever.
All of this meant an anxious wait until ACE announced its much-delayed portfolio on 4 November. When the funding allocations were unveiled, there was a sigh of relief among many existing museum NPOs, which seem to have got off relatively lightly compared to some other arts sectors.
Birmingham Museums Trust and Hampshire Cultural Trust are among those organistions who received the same or a small uplift to their funding. Others received an even bigger boost: Derby Museums Trust welcomed a 37.5% uplift, while Woodhorn Charitable Trust in Northumberland was given a 70% increase.
And there was good news that 28 museum-led organisations had been newly added to the portfolio (see box), many in places that had been previously starved of cultural funding, such as New Forest, Kirklees and Bradford – and even a few in London, including the Garden Museum and Foundling Museum.
In total, museum-led organisations shared £37.6m in funding, a 21% increase on the previous NPO round. The overall investment covers 223 museum sites. A number of sector bodies were also given the new status of Investment Programme Support Organisations, including the Touring Exhibitions Group, the Group for Education in Museums and Culture&, the charity that supports ethnic diversity in the museum and culture sector.
But these positives belie deeper issues. With inflation rates soaring, the stagnant grant-in-aid that many organisations received amounts to a real-terms cut of up to 10%. With this meagre offering, will the new round of NPOs really be able to embed lasting change?
And there were some much more significant reductions for some, including University of Cambridge Museums, which received a 40% cut in its funding.
“While there is no doubt that this significant reduction to our current level of Arts Council England funding represents a major challenge, we’re grateful for the support, especially given the difficult times that many people are facing," said Luke Syson, director of Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum, following the announcement.
As expected, the axe fell hard in London. In the visual arts category, institutions such as the Serpentine Gallery, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Camden Art Centre and Whitechapel Gallery received reductions of 42%, 23%, 36% and 6.5% respectively, while the Barbican arts centre is no longer an NPO.
Former Sector Support Organisations were also cut loose. Culture24, which helps develop digital literacy, skills and capacity in the sector, is no longer in the portfolio. Nor is the Audience Agency, which provided the Audience Finder data service used by NPOs to connect with audiences.
Beyond the portfolio
Several museums are no longer in the portfolio, including the Tank Museum in Dorset, the National Horseracing Museum in Suffolk and the Watts Gallery Trust in Surrey.
For the first time, former NPOs are able to apply for transitional funding that will continue up to October 31 2023, giving them a small amount of breathing space to develop other funding arrangements.
Some are philosophical about life beyond the portfolio. “For us, NOT having ACE funding might just make delivering our mission easier and more rewarding,” wrote the Audience Agency’s Anne Torregiani in a recent blog. “We’ll be able to focus in a more unfettered way on what really matters to our stakeholders - growing their audiences, serving their communities and making a bigger impact.”
There’s no doubt that the next few years are going to be tough for organisations both within and without the safety net of NPO funding. Although some of its decisions have been baffling, the arts council’s efforts to fairly balance investment under difficult financial and political circumstances are to be applauded, and there are some genuinely exciting new museum entrants on the list.
But will this thinly spread portfolio really achieve Dorries’s dream of enduring cultural redistribution by 2026 - or will it have less shelf life than your average culture secretary?
New museum NPOs
North Yorkshire Moors Railway Trust, Pickering
£250,000 per year
An accredited museum set up by the local community and run by volunteers. Known globally for its preservation for historic railway sites and distinctive collections – featured in film and TV, including Harry Potter and Downton Abbey.
Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Blackburn
£148,000 per year
One of the UK’s first purpose-built museums outside of London. Home to a collection of paintings, prints and other artworks, and one of the first UK galleries dedicated to South Asian culture.
St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, New Forest
£150,000 per year
Located in the coastal market town of Lymington, this museum and art gallery is inspired by local pride and supported by the local community. Activity focuses on around health and wellbeing and supporting families on low income.
National Football Museum, Manchester
£350,000 per year
Holds the largest collection of public collection of football objects in the world. The museum champions equality and wants to increase in representation of women’s history in football.
National Paralympic Heritage Trust, Aylesbury
£100,000 per year
Over the next three years, the trust has pledged to work with and support museums, venues and event organisers across three south-east communities, which have a rich Paralympic and/or disability sports history, and share their expertise of disability access in heritage.
Jarrow Hall, South Tyneside
£125,000 per year
A museum dedicated to exploring the life and legacy of the medieval scholar Bede, which includes a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village and farm. Educational programmes for young people, including those with learning disabilities, are run in the Hall which also houses an extensive collection documenting the history of the area.
Creswell Heritage Trust, Nottinghamshire
£358,375 per year
Creswell Crags is cave network and Ice Age archaeological site that features the only examples of rock art yet discovered in the UK. With the funding, visitors can expect to see new installations, including a new Ice Age settlement.